We took our daughter for her monthly check-up with the ophthalmologist this morning. She has been going for more than a year and I have stopped wanting to cry each time we leave with another prescription for glasses and patches, but it is still an ordeal. The doctor was recommended as one of the best for paediatric eye conditions by our neighbours whose three children saw her. "By the way", they added: "She's very disagreeable". If a French person remarks that their doctor is disagreeable you can guarantee they are because Gallic patients have remarkable tolerance for doctors who are brusque, uncommunicative and unfriendly. You often hear people describing their GP or specialist as "sec"(dry, off-hand), and that is considered normal.
We chose her anyway, on the basis that professional skills outweigh personal charm. I admit I was a little concerned by her state-of-the-Ark equipment and impatience with La Fille, who performs eye-tests with remarkable patience and humour given her age, but had never found her particularly disagreeable. That was until the last visit. After peering into our daughter's eyes she announced: "Hypermétropie, astigmatism, strabism". "What?" I asked trying to contain my panic,"Is hyper-whatever?" (We already knew about the strabism, otherwise known as a squint, and I had heard of astigmatism, but "hyper" anything had to be bad). Now I know for a fact, because I have seen it with my own eyes, that this is the point where an NHS specialist gets out his pen, draws a detailed diagram of the eye, then explains the mysteries of human vision in words of less than three syllables. Reassured or not, at least you have a reasonable idea of what is wrong. The French ophthalmologist rummaged in her desk and brought out a single sheet pamphlet, which she thrust in my direction, with a: "Read that." I asked her the chances of the hyper-whatever it was being corrected by glasses. "Don't ask me, I'm not the sun queen," was her faithfully translated response. It was only when I returned home, trawled the Internet and phoned Moorfields Eye Hospital in London that I found out that "hypermétropie" is long-sightedness. Why could she not have just said that?
Why? Because in my experience that is not what French doctors do, or feel they should do. If I have ever dared to ask about, and I mean ask not question, a diagnosis or treatment I have been given the sort of stare that says: "How dare you?" The attitude is: "I am the doctor, I have been to medical school. You are the patient, you have not." Of course this is true, but since when have doctors been infallible . When I once politely asked a specialist if a certain treatment, well tried and tested in the US and the UK, was worth a go, he regarded me as if I was completely mad. "We don't do that here," he replied sternly. I was not sure if he meant they did not do the treatment in France or that patients did not ask.
French doctors and dentists, particularly those in Paris often do without receptionists. This means they spend half your appointment answering calls and making appointments for other patients. Those who have receptionists seem to be unaware, or do not care, that most have attended a patient aversion course. Here is a typical exchange; this time me trying to make an appointment with La Fille's chest specialist after she was suspected of having asthma (she did not).
Me: “Can I make an appointment with Dr Doodah.”
Receptionist: “She’s not here.” (Note: not “Sorry, she’s not here”)
Me: “When will she be back?”
R: “She’s on maternity leave.”
Me: “So she won’t be back for a while. Does she have a replacement or a stand-in?”
Me: “Because I’d like to make an appointment with him or her.”
Me: “Because Dr Doodah said it was very important she saw my daughter in three months. It is now three months."
Me: “Um, I don't know why. She just said to come back in three months.”
R: “Hold on.” (Note, not “Please hold on.”)
Twiddly music....several minutes later.
R: "Yes, hello. Can I help you?"
Me: Deep breath. “Excuse me, I was holding on to make an appointment with Dr Doodah’s stand in.”
Me: “Well, as I just explained the doctor said...look can I please just have an appointment with Dr Doodah’s stand in? Please?”
R: “What’s wrong with your daughter and why does she need to see Dr Doodah?”
Me: “Look, I don’t know. I’m not the doctor. All I know is that three months ago the doctor said it was very important she saw my daughter in three month. Now can I please see somebody?”
R: “Hold on.”
More twiddly music.
R: “Yes, hello?"
Me: "Oh good grief."
I promise you this is not unusual. I could go on...and on, with many other personal and anecdotal examples, but you get the idea: bashing the NHS is a British national sport but it is not all bad and indeed there are - shock, horror - aspects of it that are actually much better than in France. Having not lived in the UK for several years I could not say if one is globally better or worse than the other, but I know they are very, very different and difficult to compare fairly. In all the years in France I have come across only one doctor who is always on time with appointments (as opposed to up to several hours late), always friendly, always chatty and always willing to discuss and advise. She is my GP...and she is English.